Zhou Youguang (Chinese: 周有光; pinyin: Zhōu Yǒuguāng; 13 January 1906 – 14 January 2017)[1]​ was a Chinese economist, banker, linguist, sinologist, publisher, and supercentenarian, known as the "father of Pinyin",[11][13] a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese, which was officially adopted by the government of the People's Republic of China in 1958, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1982, and the United Nations in 1986.[15][1

Early life and career

Zhou was born as Zhou Yaoping in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, on 13 January 1906 to a Qing Dynasty official.[11][5] At the age of ten, he and his family moved to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. In 1918, he entered Changzhou High School, during which time he first took an interest in linguistics. He graduated in 1923 with honours.[19]

Zhou enrolled the same year in St. John's University, Shanghai where he majored in economics and took supplementary coursework in linguistics.[5] He was almost unable to attend due to his family's poverty, but friends and relatives fundraised 200 yuan for the admission fee, and also helped him pay for tuition.[19] He left during the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925 and transferred to Guanghua University, from which he graduated in 1927.[5]

On 30 April 1933, Zhou married Zhang Yunhe (张允和), and the couple went to Japan for Zhou's studies.[5] Zhou started as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo, later transferring to Kyoto University due to his admiration of the Japanese Marxist economist Hajime Kawakami, who was a professor there at the time. Kawakami's arrest for joining the outlawed Japanese Communist Party in January 1933, however, meant that Zhou could not be his student. Zhou's son, Zhou Xiaoping (周晓平), was born in 1934. Later, the couple also had a daughter, Zhou Xiaohe (周小禾).[19]

In 1937, due to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Zhou and his family moved to the wartime capital Chongqing, and his daughter died.[15] He worked for Sin Hua Bank before entering public service as a deputy director at the National Government's Ministry of Economic Affairs, agricultural policy bureau (经济部农本局). After the 1945 Japanese defeat in World War II, Zhou went back to work for Sin Hua where he was stationed overseas: first in New York City and then in London. During his time in the United States, he met Albert Einstein[5] twice.[17]

Zhou participated for a time in the China Democratic National Construction Association, but when the People's Republic was established in 1949 he returned to Shanghai,[5][11][13] where he taught economics at Fudan University for several years.[15]

Designing Pinyin

In 1955, the government placed Zhou at the head of a committee to reform the Chinese language to increase literacy. While other committees oversaw the tasks of promulgating Mandarin Chinese as the national language and creating simplified Chinese characters, Zhou's committee was charged with developing a romanization to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters.[11] Zhou said the task took about three years, and was a full-time job.[11] Pinyin was made the official romanization in 1958, although (as now) it was only a pronunciation guide, not a substitute writing system. Zhou based Pinyin on several preexisting systems: the phonemes were inspired by Gwoyeu Romatzyh of 1928 and Latinxua Sin Wenz of 1931, while the diacritic markings representing tones were inspired by zhuyin.

In April 1979, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Warsaw held a technology conference. Speaking on behalf of the People's Republic of China, Zhou proposed the use of the "Hanyu Pinyin System" as the international standard for the spelling of Chinese. Following a vote in 1982 the scheme became ISO 7098.

In the modern era Pinyin has largely replaced older romanization systems such as Wade-Giles.[15] It is the principal vehicle for most Chinese language computer input.

Later activities


During the Cultural Revolution, Zhou was sent to live in the countryside and to be "re-educated", as were many other intellectuals at that time.[11][13] He spent two years at a labour camp.[6]

After 1980, Zhou worked with Liu Zunqi and Chien Wei-zang on translating the Encyclopædia Britannica into Chinese, earning him the nickname "Encyclopedia Zhou".[5] Zhou continued writing and publishing after the creation of Pinyin; for example, his book Zhongguo Yuwen de Shidai Yanjin (中国语文的时代演进), translated into English by Zhang Liqing, was published in 2003 as The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts. From 2000, he wrote ten books, of which some have been banned in China.

In 2011, during an interview with NPR, Zhou said that he hoped to see the day China changed its position on the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, an event he said had ruined Deng Xiaoping's reputation as a reformer.[6] He became an advocate of political reform, and was critical of the Communist Party of China's attacks on traditional Chinese culture when it came into power.[6]

In early 2013, both Zhou and his son were interviewed by Dr. Adeline Yen Mah at their residence in Beijing. Mah documented the visit in a video and presented Zhou with a Pinyin game she created for the iPad.[8] Zhou became a supercentenarian on 13 January 2016 when he reached the age of 110.[7] He was one of the few supercentenarians known for reasons other than their longevity.

Zhou died on 14 January 2017 at his home in Beijing, a day after his 111th birthday; no cause was given.[15] His wife had died in 2002, and his son had died in 2015.[15] At the time, he was the seventh-oldest living man and the oldest living person in China. He is one of the 100 world's verified oldest men in history.


Zhou was the author of more than 40 books, some of them banned in China and over 10 of them published after he turned 100 in 2005.[15]

Title (Simplified Chinese)PinyinEnglish titlePublication year
新中国的金融问题Xīn zhōngguó de jīnróng wèntíChina's financial problems1949
汉语拼音词汇Hànyǔ pīnyīn cíhuìChinese phonetic alphabet glossary1950
中國拼音文字研究Zhōngguó pīnyīn wénzì yánjiūA study of Chinese phonetic alphabets1953
资本的原始积累Zīběn de yuánshǐ jīlěiPrimitive accumulation of capital1954
字母的故事Zìmǔ de gùshìThe alphabet's story1954
汉字改革槪论Hànzì gǎigé gài lùnOn the reform of Chinese characters1961
电报拼音化Diànbào pīnyīn huàTelegraph rominization1965
汉语手指字母论集Hànyǔ shǒuzhǐ zìmǔ lùn jíEssays on Chinese Sign Language1965
汉字声旁读音便查Hànzì shēng páng dúyīn biàn cháPhonetic components of Chinese characters: a sound dictionary1980
拼音化问题Pīnyīn huà wèntíProblems with Pinyin1980
语文风云Yǔwén fēngyúnWeather language1981
中国语文的现代化Zhōngguó yǔwén de xiàndàihuàModernization of the Chinese language1986
世界字母简史Shìjiè zìmǔ jiǎn shǐA brief history of the world's alphabets1990
新语文的建设Xīn yǔwén de jiànshèConstructing new languages1992
中国语文纵横谈Zhōngguó yǔwén zònghéng tánFeatures of the Chinese language1992
汉语拼音方案基础知识Hànyǔ pīnyīn fāng'àn jīchǔ zhīshìFundamentals of Pinyin1993
语文闲谈Yǔwén xiántánLanguage Chat1995
文化畅想曲Wénhuà chàngxiǎng qǔSongs about Chinese culture1997
世界文字发展史Shìjiè wénzì fāzhǎn shǐHistory of the worldwide development of writing1997
中国语文的时代演进Zhōngguó yǔwén de shídài yǎnjìnThe historical evolution of Chinese languages and scripts1997
比较文字学初探Bǐjiào wénzì xué chūtànA tentative study of comparative philology1998
多情人不老Duō qíngrén bùlǎoLovers do not get old1998
汉字和文化问题Hànzì hé wénhuà wèntíChinese characters and the question of culture1999
新时代的新语文Xīn shídài de xīn yǔwénThe new language of the new era1999
人类文字浅说Rénlèi wénzì qiǎnshuōAn introduction to human language2000
现代文化的冲击波Xiàndài wénhuà de chōngjíbōThe shock wave of modern culture2000
21世界的华语和华文21 Shìjiè de huáyǔ hé huáwén21 Chinese languages, one Chinese script2002
周有光语文论集Zhōuyǒuguāng yǔwén lùn jíCollection of essays by Zhou Youguang on the Chinese language2002
百岁新稿Bǎi suì xīn gǎoOne hundred years old, but publishing a new book2005
朝闻道集Cháo wén dào jíEssay collection2010
拾贝集Shi bèi jíSelected essays2011
今日花开又一年Jīnrì huā kāi yòu yī niánToday a new year blooms2011
我的人生故事Wǒ de rénshēng gùshiMy life story2013
逝年如水 - 周有光百年口述Shì nián rúshuǐ - zhōuyǒuguāng bǎinián kǒushù"The years passed like water" - Zhou Youguang's oral recounting of his life2015

See also